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In Kenya, a pushback against corruption fills courts' dockets

Activists say a sharp rise in graft cases this year is a turning point in Kenya's long battle with corruption. Most Africans think that corruption has increased over the last year.

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    Protesters sit down in the street during an anti-corruption demonstration in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Over a hundred demonstrators marched to the Supreme Court, Parliament, and State House on Tuesday to protest against corruption and demanding the government crack down on it, some carrying boxing symbols to represent the theme "Knock out corruption".
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Corruption and Kenyan politics have long been bedfellows. But these days, even the Kenyan government seems to have outdone itself, from $4,400 custom-made condom dispensers and $85 ballpoint pens to a missing $2 billion Eurobond.

President Barack Obama warned that Kenya's progress was stunted by chronic corruption during his trip in July. Then in November, in a rare joint show of force, a dozen ambassadors  — including from the US, Britain, Germany and Japan — together issued a rebuke of rampant government corruption. Soon after, a cabinet minister resigned over millions of dollars in missing funds, prompting President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare corruption a national security threat

But it is not just a problem in Kenya. A majority of Africans – 58 percent—say that corruption has increased over the past year, according to a new report by Transparency International released Tuesday. Further, in all countries surveyed a majority of citizens had a negative view of their government's anti-corruption efforts.

And while 2015 may go down as one of the most scandal-ridden in Kenyan history, it may also go down as the year Kenyans fought back. On Tuesday, police clashed with hundreds of demonstrators who were marching in Nairobi to parliament and the Supreme Court in order to deliver a petition urging greater action on corruption. 

“I believe we’ve reached the turning point, said Abraham Mutai, a whistleblower who was detained in January after publishing allegations of government corruption. "The people have reached saturation point, the government has acknowledged this corruption has reached a new level, even the international community has noticed."

Indeed a growing public intolerance for corruption is beginning to sow the seeds of progress. Most telling has been the astronomical increase of corruption cases currently in court: 350 cases, up from only 58 cases last year — indicating a hike in whistleblowers sounding the alarm.

The rising intolerance, activists say, stems from the fact that large-scale corruption, once far-removed from the realities of the average Kenyan, is hitting home unlike before. Twenty-eight percent of Kenyans believe corruption is the most pressing problem the government should address, up from 10 percent last year, producing what Kenya’s most famous whistleblower, John Githongo, calls “the return of outrage.”

“There was a sense in which Kenya had become benumbed to corruption… that ‘it is what it is’ and people have to live with it, says Mr. Githongo who quit as Kenya’s anti-corruption tsar in 2005 after he realized it was futile. "That’s gone.”

Decentralizing graft

Many Kenyans believe that the corruption circus, once limited to the central government, is now spreading its tentacles throughout all levels of governance across the country.  

Largely responsible, experts say, is a 2010 constitutional mandate to decentralize power and resources to 47 newly-created county governments. But as power and money was spread over 47 counties, so did corruption.  

“With the devolution of resources to the county government the problem of oversight became 47 times more complicated,” said Irungu Houghton, the associate director of the Society for International Development.  

Kenyans in rural areas – over 90 percent live outside the capital – saw local government as a source of protection from the rapacious central government. But with devolution, it became clear that local governments are equally capable of exploiting them.  

It showed up, for example, in the form of $1000 non-carcinogenic wheelbarrows purchased by the Bungoma County government and $60,000 trips to Dubai by Migori County governmen to learn, ironically, about waste management. 

“Devolution has helped bring home the reality of corruption to people in the rural areas,” said John Ngirachu, parliamentary editor at The Nation, one of Kenya’s largest newspapers. 

'Nothing is sacrosanct'

The hike in intolerance also stems not just from the amount of graft, but where the graft is occurring — such as the security sector. 

Earlier this month, a report by Journalists for Justice accused Kenya’s military of involvement in a sugar smuggling racket in neighboring Somalia worth an estimated $200 to $400 million a year. The report alleged the Kenyan military was in business with al Shabaab, the Islamist group responsible for the massacre at Nairobi's Westgate Mall in 2013. 

"That is cannibalistic, it is undermining and destroying our own institutions," says Githongo, the former corruption tsar. Ministries like security, education and healthcare were always considered “sacrosanct,” he says, regardless of who was in power. But things have changed.

Activists say the newfound momentum is coming from grassroot protests, like the one that took place Tuesday, and a readiness among officials to leak information as never seen before. Githongo says he receives two leaked reports weekly documenting government corruption, more than he has ever received in his almost two-decade career as an anti-corruption advocate. 

Last week, President Kenyatta announced a cabinet reshuffle to ensure better accountability. He also fired five cabinet secretaries suspended earlier in the year for charges of graft. 

“In many ways you see the government responding to public demand for action on the issue of corruption,” says Mr. Houghton. 

But progress has limits: many suspended politicians continue on government payrolls and while the number of cases brought to court this year is unprecedented, the number of actual prosecutions remains low. 

“Until we see a significant rise in the number of convictions and also in the seizure of assets we are not really convinced that we’re winning the war against corruption,” says Houghton.

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